What the Closure of Memorial Means for Civil Society in Russia

Interview with Dr. Kathleen Smith

Introduction and Background

The Russian government’s closure of Memorial, a well-respected human rights advocacy organization, sent shockwaves throughout civil society in Russia. Memorial was founded in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 1980s and tirelessly worked to document the atrocities and political repression carried out by Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet Union. The Russian government accused Memorial of violating the highly controversial “foreign agent” law which requires that any organization receiving funding from abroad be labeled as a “foreign agent,” claiming that Memorial created “false images of the USSR as a terrorist state.” On December 28th, 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court sided with these arguments, leading to the shutdown of Memorial.

While Memorial’s closure is hardly the first civil society organization or independent media source to be forcibly shut down in Russia in recent years, the closing of Memorial, the oldest and arguably best-known human rights group in the country, is cause for alarm. In a statement given after the closing of Memorial, Jan Raczynski, Memorial’s Board Chairman, argued that the closure is a “bad signal showing that our society and country are moving in the wrong direction.”

Given the gravity of the situation, our team at Democracy and Society reached out to Dr. Kathleen Smith, an expert in Russian politics and a professor at Georgetown University, to better understand the reasons behind Memorial’s closure and the impacts this will have on civil society in Russia. The following is the transcript from our interview with Dr. Smith, which was conducted by editors Janelle Clausen and Evan Mann on January 6, 2022.    

Thank you for taking the time to join us, Prof. Smith. You are a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, as well as a political scientist who has extensively studied Russian memory politics and transitional justice. And I believe you have been looking at Memorial for quite a long time. Could you just start us off with a little bit about your studying of Memorial, memory politics, and what got you into that?

Ever since I first started studying Russia, I was fascinated by the Stalinist period.

How was there a massive wave of terror and repression that people didn’t talk about in the public sphere? As an undergraduate, this was one of the biggest questions about the Soviet Union and it was an extremely relevant question for the time. I started a Ph.D. program, when Gorbachev began to show himself as a reformer. The question that captivated me was what happens with past acts of repression as you shift into a more open political society? Glasnost, Perestroika, they started as economic reform programs. However, it soon became clear that these programs could not function without reducing censorship. 

I was really studying memory politics, just as these ideas were coming into the public sphere. Initially, it meant reading Soviet newspapers and periodicals, identifying cases where you could see that people were becoming bolder and the state censor was allowing more materials through. Following that, there was a remarkable push for what were called informal associations, or неформалы (nye formali), to distinguish them from the rest of organizational life, which had to be approved by the state. In this way, Memorial started its activity in 1987, the year I graduated from college, and by the time I went to do my Ph.D. research in 1991, it had become a nationwide and transnational movement. 

By this time, there were countless branches of Memorial across not only Russia, but emerging in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Estonia. Sometimes they had different names, but they were affiliated to some degree with the main branch located in Moscow. When Memorial today calls itself the International Memorial Society, they don’t mean foreign countries, they meant they crossed these national boundaries inside the Soviet Union. 

For me, it was an amazing chance to look at a popular movement. When I got there in 1991, countless Russian activists asked me, ‘why do you want to study them? You should be studying political parties. It’s all about political parties, Memorial is yesterday’s news.’ 

So that’s a good way to transition into asking, what was the big deal about Memorial? Could you offer a quick overview of the important role it’s played in Russian society?

Memorial started as a group that said, “We want to build a monument to the victims of Stalin’s repressions.” This was something that Khrushchev had called for many years earlier during the first wave of post-Stalinist reforms. This normalized the idea, providing a safe ask because supporters could say that Khrushchev had wanted this, but it was not accomplished. “Let’s fulfill the goals of the famous 20th Party Congress.” But with that they needed more research, to change history books, and to further understand the roots of the terror so that it would never be repeated.

Memorial, I think, was really crucial in terms of establishing a safe platform to start public discussions, one that could be either radical, moderate, or even somewhat conservative. In some local Memorial societies, what they really did was organize survivors and provide legal assistance and rehabilitation. In other places, they made fiery speeches about how these actions date back to Lenin, and the need to achieve complete democratization in Russia. It was flexible in form. 

Do you feel Memorial effectively changed the public dialogue and that it helped people come to terms with history? Or is there not as much progress as we would have hoped?

I completed my dissertation research from January to June of 1991, went home, and then the August Coup happened. By December 25, there was no more Soviet Union. My thought then was, “Wow, this topic is really going to open up, there’s going to be lustration, the archives will open, maybe they’ll get rid of the KGB,” because we had seen these dramatic acts happening across Eastern Europe. 

But none of that happened in Russia. There certainly was much more progress in coming to terms with the past, in the sense that information becomes publicly available, and it’s not stigmatized, to say, you’re the descendant of an enemy of the people or your parents were unjustly repressed. Yet the state itself doesn’t really take on any of these tasks. They made a law about victims of political repression in 1991 saying they should publish the names of victims and perpetrators, but that law has never fully been fulfilled. 

They definitely never published the perpetrators’ names. In fact, the people digging for that information now partly spawned the backlash against Memorial today.

Could you get more into the backlash or when pushback against Memorial started?

Coming to terms with the Soviet past is a difficult topic. There are always going to be groups and opinions in society and we saw this with evaluations of Stalin where people think the old repression is blown out of proportion, just like we in America have debates now about slavery, the start of the American republic, and whether you should put slavery in a corner or consider it central to the story. This has happened with Stalinism in recent decades. But in terms of a direct attack on Memorial, that came after the foreign agent law was passed in 2012. That legislation, in a way, targets groups seen as too Westernized, too successful, wealthy, and impactful. They’re making grants and they’re running large-scale programs, which is definitely true of the International Memorial Society. 

Its human rights subsidiary was also a thorn in the side of the state. They were researching abuses in Chechnya, bringing cases before the European Court, exposing issues about torture in prisons, and more recently keeping a well-researched list of people who they dub to be political prisoners. These specific actions pushed the government against them. 

But even so, this move to “liquidate” Memorial was somewhat out of the blue. I still have trouble believing that it happened with such great success. More than 100,000 people signed an online petition including renowned individuals, including Gorbachev, speaking up against the liquidation. The court firmly ignored all the legal arguments, which heavily favored Memorial, and made the decision the prosecutors wanted, which was to close the organizations. They even went beyond it. Even though the main trial was based on the prosecutor’s request to dissolve the International Memorial Society, the umbrella organization, the court decision also included all of its branches. They didn’t have a day in court. And who are they? How do we define them? Do they have to be called Memorial? This lawsuit was about the Foreign Agents Act but most of these local branches have not been judged to be foreign agents. How could they violate a law that does not even apply to them? That’s just another example that shows the legal reasoning behind these cases was ludicrous.

It’s a really sprawling decision to suddenly target all the local and foreign ones – I feel like that is kind of a telling detail about the Russian state’s mental state.

I agree. It’s interesting, that aspect hasn’t got that much publicity. I think it’s coming. I think Memorial’s lawyers are trying to figure that out.

There’s been a trend since the foreign agent laws came into effect of closing independent media sources and other civil society organizations. What makes Memorial’s closure more unique than other, often larger organizations?

The foreign agent law mainly intimidated organizations, and some ‘self liquidated’ – that is, once the state said, “You’re a foreign agent, here are all the new rules you have to follow by,” they just said, “Well, we can’t do this, we’re not going to exist.” Some of those groups reformed under other names, started from scratch, and rejected foreign money. The law was a way to kind of intimidate and restrict activities, but not necessarily to ban them. Now there is a law against undesirable organizations that are applied mostly to foreign organizations and essentially a ban on working in Russia. 

Groups like National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are under this law, because the state says they’re carrying out political activities on Russian territory, and they made criminal penalties for Russians who cooperate with these organizations. So if you take a grant from NED or go to a conference they funded, there can be repercussions. That’s in the sphere of intimidation and narrowing the civil society field. When you look at the International Memorial Society before the liquidation, a lot of what they did was, by our standards, conservative. One thing they were famous for was a high school history essay contest, where they encouraged students to do local or family history, to look in local archives and use family documents to write these essays. If you did well in this conference, say you’re a kid from Krasnoyarsk, suddenly you get a free trip to Moscow, and people are praising you, you think maybe you should go to Moscow State University instead of my local teacher’s college. It was really a big deal. 

But there was some sensitivity around what students were learning and what influence they were coming under, so the project started getting flack. In some regions, teachers were being told by their bosses to not participate. If your student received an award, they were told to tell them they can’t go to the conference. It was an effort to disrupt. Obviously, not all teachers and regions followed suit. So again, more intimidation, but not removing the organization altogether. 

The other thing is that the International Memorial historically did not engage in traditional politics. They’re not a political party. They really call themselves a historical enlightenment society. They are doing museum exhibitions, inviting interns to work in their archives, and having things like this contest for school children. They don’t fit the profile of subverting the government and state institutions. I think that made these recent events all the more surprising, especially given their reputation after thirty years of work in independent Russia.

Do you believe there is any relationship between the timing of Memorial’s closure and the anniversary of the USSR’s collapse, given Putin’s inclinations to want to rewrite history? 

My colleagues and friends at Memorial were almost reading the tea leaves. They were saying, “Look, this hearing is scheduled for the anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s death in 1989. And, this one coincides with December 25, the end of the Soviet Union.” It did seem almost mystically tied up with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. However, for me, I feel like it doesn’t so much mirror the end of the Soviet Union but mark the end of perestroika and the liberalizing dreams that started in the mid-1980s. 

You cannot really be that optimistic about Russia anymore. There is no democracy, the market is a halfway market given the amount of state corruption and intervention, and now in the intellectual sphere, it seems free speech is going to be punished because the prosecutor, in his closing speech for the trial of International Memorial said, “You guys are guilty of painting a negative picture of Russia, and whose interest is that in? Obviously, only in the interest of Russia’s enemies and foreigners.” That shows that you are a foreign agent and you’re an insidious organization that should be stopped. It is a logical leap, but it’s one that kind of fits with some of these conspiracy-type theories that the Soviet Union’s collapse was not because its economy was a stagnating mess, but rather due to exogenous forces

In terms of openness, how different is modern Russia today versus the Perestroika era? Are recent events a backlash to excessive openness or reflective of a larger public struggle?

Certainly, the level of freedom of speech in Russia is dramatically different from what it was in 1987 when Memorial was started. Some of that is like Pandora’s Box: you cannot put it back. Think about all the things we learned about Stalin’s repressions: we know them, the information is out of the archives, it’s been published in books, people are aware of their family histories. That can’t be taken away. 

The other difference, of course, is that we have the internet. People were concerned about what will happen to Memorial’s database where they’ve collected all these names of victims of repression, but I remember when they gave me the database on a plastic compact disc so that I could take it back home. Trust me, they’re not losing that data. This data has been saved on servers all around the world.

You also can certainly frighten teachers and make them teach history more strictly by the state-approved book, as opposed to projects using the internet. It is a chill on free speech, but you can’t really ban it. I would add that Putin himself does not endorse Stalin’s repressions. There are a lot of things we don’t like about Putin, however, he is definitely not a Stalinist. He and the State even participated a few years ago in the creation of a monument to the victims of repression in Moscow, and Memorial cooperated in that plan, although some people criticized it.

They didn’t think it was a good tone to be working with this newly repressive state to create a monument to past repressions without discussing modern oppressions. But essentially Memorial at the time said this is the state’s monument, the state still owes Russia an apology, and this will not replace what we do, but we want this monument to happen. Putin attended the monument’s opening, and he gave a speech about Stalinist legacies talking about how terrible it was that these things happened in Russia. I always point out that if you read this speech, you’ll see it’s written entirely in the passive voice. It’s like, oh, then collectivization happened. And then there were the purges. And then there were deportations, all of this bad stuff, poor Russia. But now we will remember our ancestors, we will feel terrible about it. But that’s not really an analytic assessment of Russian history. The problem here is you can’t draw lessons about why these bad things happened. Part of it is because Russia was not a democracy, it’s not a multi-party system, and there was no free speech. You could take strong civic lessons from Stalinist history, but those are not the lessons approved officially today by the state.

Could you speak to what the future of civil society looks like in Russia? 

The possibilities for independent civil society in Russia will be seriously damaged by this activity. The foreign agents law was a label, making organizations wear their “Scarlet Letter” everywhere. In fact, when the state brought the case against the International Memorial Society, the prosecutor argued it had repeatedly and grossly violated the foreign agents law. 

The backstory to that is that a local prosecutor in Ingushetia, this troubled region of Russia, went through every social media page that Memorial had, and found posts where it didn’t say Memorial had been deemed a foreign agent. The prosecutor took them to court, Memorial paid enormous fines, and the organization fixed everything. That is why Memorial essentially said they are not a “repeat violator.” They jumped through every hoop, fixed everything, and did everything right. There haven’t been many violations, but the prosecutor essentially said the technicalities of the law don’t matter: “If we don’t like the activities that you’re doing, we’re going to go after you.” That’s where I think the law has really been distorted and weaponized by the state. Of course, that is going to frighten people in civil society. 

I don’t think it will kill civil society altogether. A suggestion made by Russian journalist Sergey Parkhomenko, who was involved in many different civic projects, resonated with me. He said groups will take on a new level of informality, whereas the International Memorial Society had its own building, people, and employees that paid taxes on it and had grants from various organizations. What’s going to be popular is people coming together to volunteer, do some activities, and then staying as individuals. There is no formalization, charters, membership lists, or incorporation. It’s more like the flash mob theory of civil society. Is that going to be as effective as a formal organization? No. And it would be different. But I think there are many energetic creative people in Russia today and not just people who’ve been around doing this work for 30 years, but young people who will want to continue being active. They’re going to find modern, technologically astute ways to do it.

Could there be a cultural argument for long-term optimism regarding civil society?

Yes. Maybe this is not the most rational part of my brain but I do hold out optimism, because Memorial is about people and a mindset. You can dissolve the organization, but again, you can’t put that knowledge or those attitudes back in Pandora’s Box. Cultural takes on Russian politics are often too simplistic, alluding to the eternal peasant mind or the terrible yoke of a Mongol horde. Russia is a very large and diverse country where you can find many different kinds of cultural indicators and activities. Anti-Stalinism and the desire to have free speech aren’t disappearing. I don’t know when they’re going to get a good workout in Russia. 

But I will also highlight that in neighboring Kazakhstan, the government was thrown into disarray because of surprising unplanned mass demonstrations largely – but not entirely – over economic issues. Information coming out showed the list of demands in Almaty, the country’s biggest city, including freeing political prisoners and the removal from power of old leadership from the communist period that had reformed themselves. So, autocrats should know that you may be able to suppress the public sphere, but what that usually means is you don’t know what people really think. Gorbachev didn’t know what people really thought and couldn’t fathom the range of national sentiment that had been suppressed before. This was one of the biggest causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He did not anticipate the Baltic states almost immediately would start talking about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and how they wanted sovereignty. He was not prepared. So the more that Putin represses free speech, the less that he knows about what people really think.

Is there anything else we haven’t touched on that is important about Memorial, civil society in Russia, or even international implications surrounding this closure?

There is an ironic side to the way this has been handled. Prosecutors making these totally ungrounded fake cases against Memorial outraged the liberals in Russia. The people working at Memorial have been overwhelmed by the amount of support that they got, and it has been important to them in terms of trying to be optimists themselves. Some might argue Memorial is a niche group and ask, do people really care about it? The answer seems to be yes. 

It’s not just older people who came of age in the Soviet Union and remember what Communism was like. It’s a whole range of young people who didn’t know the whole history of Memorial and Andrei Sakharov. They have revived the tradition of courtroom artists portraying the scenes with emotional power. They draw graphic novels, comic books and so forth, with modern twists. Even as Memorial’s trials were taking place in several stages, Memorial in their headquarters opened a new exhibit called “Drawings from the Courtroom,” and they’re adding materials every week. 

You can see these young people are really being drawn into the process. It reminds me of the old dissident movement, where maybe you didn’t want to be political or risk involvement, but as soon as your friend was in trouble, you had to be a morally good person. That’s how the dissident movement grew. It may be that by creating a need for people to defend Memorial, the regime inadvertently mobilized a new wave of potential supporters. So all is not lost, this is not an obituary.

All this being said, what is the one thing you want people to take away from this conversation?

Memory politics comes in waves. It’s not that you come to terms with the past and then you’re good and you’ve completed your course. It comes back as different events arise, new information comes out, or new people get mobilized. So in a way, this attack on Memorial is the state recognizing this group is potentially dangerous to them, because they have an alternate, more civic-minded narrative about history and what the present and the future should be like. 

It also could be the start of a new wave, where popular interest in this time period also builds up. That we don’t know yet, but it is definitely a possibility. After all, if the state says this thing is so dangerous, doesn’t it make you want to know more about it? When people were asking Memorial what they could do to help, one of the first things Memorial said to do was to check their database and search their last names. See how many people in the database share their last name. People are starting their own genealogical treasure hunt and that activity is already making people think about the past in a more specific, and maybe long-lasting, fashion.

It has been a lot of fun talking to you, even about this somewhat depressing topic. This may be the end of Perestroika, but this isn’t the end of history.“